Economy

Unions set to push for higher wages in 2009

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Thousands of employers across the retail, mining, finance and manufacturing sectors are bracing for industrial problems this year as more than 5000 enterprise bargain agreements come up for renegotiation.

James Thomson

Thousands of employers across the retail, mining, finance and manufacturing sectors are bracing for industrial problems this year as more than 5000 enterprise bargain agreements come up for renegotiation.

Unions are expected to push for guarantees for employee entitlements and wage rises of between 3% to 15%, but business leaders have been quick to warn that the perilous state of the economy will leave many employers with little room to move.

The chief executive of the Australian Industry Group, Heather Ridout, says traditional industrial issues such as skills shortages and inflation have become less important as business prepares for a horror 2009.

“The unions are going to have to curb their ambitions because everyone is just bracing for it,” she told The Australian Financial Review.

Unions in the mining sector are looking for pay rises of 15%, retail unions are pushing for around 3%, construction unions are looking for around 5% and manufacturing unions want 3% to 3.5%.

The national secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, Dave Oliver, is pushing hard for guarantees that 100% of employee entitlements will be protected in the event of a company collapse.

“Going into the difficult economic circumstances this year, we have said that employers are using billions of dollars in employee entitlements as… an interest-free, unsecured, high-risk loan,” Oliver told The Australian Financial Review.

The manufacturing sector looms as the first industrial battleground, with more than 1000 enterprise bargain agreements set to expire between March and June.

But other unions planning for renegotiations will face a choice between bargaining under current laws or waiting until 1 July when the Rudd Government’s new collective bargaining regime comes into force.

Under the new system, an employer will be forced to enter into collective negotiations if the majority of workers want it.

The largest single agreement up for renegotiation covers about 100,000 Woolworths workers. Union officials expect the retail giant will at least match the agreement at Coles, which gave workers a 10.4% pay rise over three years.

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